Back to School Anxiety
The last few weeks of summer are upon us. Families with school-aged kids are now starting to focus on the beginning of a new year of learning. With vaccination rates among the highest in the world, a majority of Ontario parents have registered their children for in-school learning. The government has allocated billions of dollars towards infrastructure improvements, such as ventilation systems, to ensure safety in schools. Without a doubt, everyone wants an uninterrupted school year compared to what occurred over the past 18 months. But with the 4th COVID-19 wave presently underway, how does your child feel about returning to school?
Even the most normal end-of-summer weeks induce some anxiety in children. The Pandemic could magnify the experience much more. Over the past year, children may have lost connections with old friends and some might worry about fitting in. Others will be nervous about what to expect from unfamiliar teachers. Those entering kindergarten or a new school for the first time might experience a heightened sense of uncertainty. If your child displayed separation anxiety in the past, then this will likely be a very stressful time. Kids absorb information from their environment including social media and conversations adults have with each other. Both information and misinformation about the virus may leave some feeling unsafe about returning to school.
Anxiety In Children
In evolutionary terms, anxiety is a survival mechanism used by mammals to react to or escape from imminent danger. This sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-fight response, preparing the body for intense physical activity. It is a natural alarm system that allows us to size up potential threats so we can either run from them or react to them. Anxiety directs us during emergencies like the sounding of a smoke detector during a fire. It helps us to survive. Everyone experiences it and for the most part, it is a helpful response. However, anxiety becomes problematic when one obsesses over uncertainty to a point where it paralyzes their ability to function normally. In practical terms, people use words like fear, apprehension, angst, alarm or even uneasiness to describe anxiety.
Children do not have the vocabulary to express thoughts and feelings like adults. Consequently, back-to-school anxiety could manifest itself in non-verbal ways. Stomach pain, irritability, withdrawal or even a lack of enthusiasm about back-to-school shopping could all be signs of something emotionally amiss. Parents should therefore pay attention to non-verbal cues and behaviour, in addition to their words. Here are four strategies you can use to communicate with and support your children over the next few weeks.
1. Validate Emotions
First, create an environment where you can foster dialogue with your child about their feelings. Fears about exposure to the virus are anxiety-provoking even for adults contemplating a return to the office. Consequently, do not brush off your kids’ concerns by suggesting everything will be fine. Also, don’t belittle their feelings by referring to their fears as “nonsense”. Instead, listen to them attentively and acknowledge their feelings. Offer them factual information about the virus from reliable sources and discuss the safety protocols in place at their school.
Secondly, if your child needs reassurance, then respond to that need truthfully. For example, do not say “You are a fantastic soccer player and will definitely make the team!” You do not have control over that outcome and offering them solid guarantees can make disappointments harder to manage. In the long run, this causes them to doubt themselves and they can end up requiring constant affirmation from others.
Parents can instead reassure kids while building their resiliency to accept losses gracefully. An appropriate response would be, “I am glad you told me how you feel. This means a lot to you, and it is normal to worry. I am so proud of you because trying out takes courage.” Empathizing with stories of failures and successes from your own childhood can help you build an emotional connection. Sometimes, kids are not looking for solutions. Some simply want validation of their feelings. You can support and provide a sense of stability by helping them talk through their doubts and fears.
2. Introduce Predictable Routines
As soon as possible after summer vacations are over, start establishing regular routines for meals, exercise and bedtime. Hunger and fatigue, topped with heightened anxiety, produce ideal conditions for “hangry” kids, flaring tempers and tantrums. Predictability offers a stabilizing anchor for the entire family, including parents, and helps children regulate their emotions better.
You can also start exposing them to their school and all things associated with it before the first day. For example, drive by the school or take daily walks on the school grounds. You could email their teacher for a potential video call and encourage your child to connect with their peers using social distancing guidelines.
Kids can easily pick up on their parents’ emotional cues. If you emit anxious vibes while simultaneously trying to reassure your kids, they will pick up on the incongruence between your emotions and words. Consequently, ensure you have an established exercise routine to decompress. You can also incorporate daily deep breathing and mindfulness exercises with the kids. This will not only teach them how to self-soothe but will also create an intrinsically peaceful environment around the home when back-to-school anxiety is running high.
If you permitted flexibility with bedtime over the summer break, then you must prepare for back-to-school routines by transitioning your child to predictable sleeping and waking hours. It sometimes takes them a week or two to adjust, therefore parents will benefit from starting all of this before the school term begins. Carving out time in your schedule just before bedtime for the self-care techniques described above can help set the tone for a peaceful night’s rest.
3. Encourage Positive Thinking
Scientific studies have proven that when a person’s state of mind is generally optimistic, they can handle the stress of everyday life in constructive ways. Positive thinking does not mean ignoring the unpleasantness that life can deliver. Rather it requires you to change your mindset about how to approach a tough situation productively. For example, rather than being afraid of a task you have never done before, you can view it as an opportunity to learn something new. This changes the paradigm completely for moving forward. Back-to-school anxiety is the perfect setting to help your child develop a growth mindset and reinforce positive thinking which will allow them to cope with the upcoming change and uncertainty.
While you want your child to feel and process their fears and apprehension, you can ensure this remains a positive experience overall. Helping them focus on things that create good vibes can counteract some of the negativity associated with back-to-school anxiety. For instance, talk about the fun events of past school terms. Offer specific details to deepen their positive thinking. For example, remind him/ her about when the school won a volleyball competition. Then encourage them to recall a positive moment. “Do you remember the award you received after winning the volleyball competition last year? We all went out for ice cream later. Who joined us from your team?” Your goal here is to “milk” the positive memories for all they’re worth.
4. Meet Their Attachment Needs
Children form attachment bonds with their primary caregiver(s) from infancy. This is an emotional non-verbal tie that helps them feel secure and cared for. Strong attachment bonds create a solid foundation upon which an organized and well-regulated nervous system can develop. Generally, younger children experience attachment anxiety more frequently. However, teenagers are not immune to it. Indeed, a healthy transition from adolescence to adulthood is much better facilitated by secure attachment and emotional connectedness with parents.
The Pandemic saw parents and children locked up in close quarters for months. The relaxed rules over the summer offered breathing room for many families when kids could safely play outdoors with others. As we draw closer to the school season, detaching from parents and returning to in-school classes may cause some children more anxiety than normal. Parents should lookout for signs of attachment anxiety to proactively help their kids work through it.
You can ease young children, especially those starting daycare or school for the first time, into detaching in small steps. Encourage them to play by themselves in their room while you prepare dinner, or leave them with an alternative caregiver while you go out for dinner. Children as old as 3 years of age can conjure a mental representation of their attachment figure to soothe themselves, even when the parent is not present. You can create a craft or paint a rock together and explain how they can take it to daycare or school to remind them of your love and connection. Talk about the big day as you work at your computer by saying “When you go to daycare, I will be working here at my desk on the computer and then I’ll pick you up at the end of the day.”
Older children may not require the same degree of physical closeness to derive comfort from parents when they are distressed. Their attachment needs come from knowing they have the support of their parents when they struggle with doubts and fears. Teenagers often avoid talking about back-to-school anxiety and may even label the discussion as silly. Parents can mitigate this by picking an appropriate time to bring up the topic. Avoid moments when they are angry or confrontational. Rather, broach it when they are happy and calm, and gently let them know that they can come to you for anything they are worried about, no matter what. Always provide a non-judgmental place where they can feel safe expressing their feelings.
Seeking Help for Back-To-School Anxiety
Back-to-school anxiety is short-lived for most kids. Once they settle into school and new routines, many will take the ups and downs of school life in stride. However, a small percentage of children struggle to adapt. This often occurs with children who have social anxiety, those who are bullied, and even kids with learning disabilities who do not enjoy school because they cannot keep up. If your child continues to have severe meltdowns at drop-off time and exhibits signs of anxiety even after three or four weeks, then you should seek professional help.
Anxiety always has a root cause. A trained child therapist can get to the bottom of this problem and present a plan to help the child recognize the triggers and early signs of anxiety. Then they arm them with coping tactics that allow them to soothe themselves. Child therapists will work in conjunction with parents as well as teachers as needed to ensure everyone is on the same page. Anxiety is a curable condition and the skills your child learns at therapy sessions can help them for a lifetime.
About The Authors
Yasaman Haghighat, MC, Masters in Psychology Counselling is a therapist at Beaches Therapy Group.
Mr. Rogers was famous for saying. “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
If you need someone to speak to, contact us. We have helped many children manage their anxiety using a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.